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Hungary Taxes for Healthier Eating Habits

Tax unhealthy food — lots of controversy but the step in the right direction…This article appeared in the New York Times…

BUDAPEST — Gizella Beres Devenyi, who works behind the cash register at the delicatessen Zena in a working-class neighborhood here, says it is easy to see Hungary’s new salt tax at work.

While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has raised tobacco taxes and tried to ban 32-ounce sodas in New York City, neither he nor the rest of the United States has embraced taxes as a way to promote healthier diets. Europe, on the other hand, has become something of a petri dish for a variety of food tax strategies, with a handful of countries slapping taxes on items like sugary sodas, fatty cheeses and salty chips, and others considering it. France, Finland, Denmark, Britain, Ireland and Romania have all either instituted food taxes or have been talking about it.

But perhaps no country is trying harder than Hungary, which has, in the past 18 months, imposed taxes on salt, sugar and the ingredients in energy drinks, hoping both to raise revenues and force those who are eating unhealthy foods to pay a little more toward the country’s underfinanced health system.

Visit the market halls of Budapest and it is not hard to see why. Sure, there are some vegetables. But they are far outnumbered by sweet pastries, fatty sausages and thick slabs of lard, eaten for breakfast with onions. Nearly two-thirds of Hungarians are overweight or obese, and the country has the highest per capita salt consumption in the European Union.

As a result, Hungary has one of the lowest life expectancy rates at birth in the European Union: in 2011 it was just 71.2 years for men and 78.7 for women. In 2009, the most recent statistics available for all 27 members of the bloc, life expectancy in the group averaged at 76.6 years for men and 82.6 years for women.

“We have a public health crisis,” said Miklos Szocska, the health minister, explaining the logic behind the new taxes,

which raised about $77.8 million last year. “We are leading the charts in many kinds of diseases. So, those who follow a certain lifestyle should pay for it in a small way.”

Many nutrition experts say that taxation is a powerful tool that has been effective in campaigns to reduce smoking and alcohol consumption. But many questions remain about how to make it work when it comes to changing eating habits.

Should taxation be combined with subsidies making fruits, vegetables and lean meat especially cheap? Will it actually improve diet or simply change it? And who will be affected? The truly overweight? Or the poor?

“What you have is a search out there for the best mix of ways to alter behavior,” said Dr. João Breda, the program manager for nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, which will issue a report on the subject soon. “And you have it coming from governments of all kinds, governments from left to right to center.”

But critics point out that the new interest in food taxes just happens to coincide with tough economic times in Europe. Some say the taxes are as much about raising revenues in a politically acceptable manner as they are about promoting healthy habits. And they worry that the taxes do, in fact, hit the poor the hardest.

One effort to raise taxes on saturated fat has already failed spectacularly. In October 2011, Denmark became the first country to institute such a tax, raising the price of meat, dairy, edible oils and fats, margarine and other blended spreads, among other items. Fans of the effort thought Denmark was perfectly positioned to make such a tax work, because it already had rigorous labeling requirements, an efficient administration and companies used to making these kinds of adjustments.

But barely a year later, Denmark gave up on the tax. In the end, experts say, the effort was undermined by political battles, pressure from the food industry and a population that quickly learned to go over the border to Germany to buy the products it wanted.

Read the rest of the article here.

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